A definitive account of a man of words and deeds

Jim Sullivan reviews Pulpit Radical: The Story Of New Zealand Social Campaigner Rutherford Waddell, by Ian Dougherty. Published by Saddle Hill Press.

In one of his own book reviews Rutherford Waddell wrote, "We are not great believers in books of Biography or Autobiography. They have their place and worth, but after all they give us a very imperfect, sometimes a very false notion, of the lives they record"; but in Ian Dougherty the tireless campaigner has found a recorder in whom he would be well pleased. In spite of Waddell’s forestalling the biographer by burning almost all his private papers shortly before his death, enough has survived in newspaper reports and other records to ensure that this life story has few, if any, gaps.

Northern Irishman Waddell (1850─1932), in spite of a boyhood wish to be a carpenter, seems to have been destined for the path he took as a crusading clergyman, having emerged unscathed from "the years of self pleasing and enjoyment". After an MA in ancient classics and modern languages at Queen’s College, Belfast, he studied theology, which led to a brief spell as a minister in Christchurch and then a life-shaping 40 years at Dunedin’s St Andrews’ Church.

His kaleidoscope of worthy causes during the Dunedin years ensures that this book runs to almost 300 pages. The author has conveniently arranged his chapters to allow a tidy focus on each activity, although Waddell’s actual life allowed for no such luxury as he kept a dozen balls in the air at once, often during long spells of indifferent health. Such a promiscuous spread of activity has been a blessing in that the records of numerous church and social welfare organisations have made up for the paucity of personal papers. The chapters illustrate Waddell’s wide scope: Irish politics, trade unions, kindergartens, education, temperance, gambling, conservation, missions, war, and most famous of all, the crusade against the exploitation of workers known as "sweating". The setting up of the 1890 Sweating Commission was largely due to Waddell and has raised the Dunedin sermon he preached on the social evil of long hours for little pay to that exalted status of "a speech which changed the nation", perhaps in New Zealand terms up there with Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream".

As a pulpit propagandist Waddell was unequalled, but if that was all he was remembered for his portrait might emerge as that of a dour zealot. However, the chapters on his fishing expeditions and enthusiastic involvement in literature give the image of a more rounded and personable companion, albeit that the small section on Waddell’s sense of humour definitely reveals no clerical P. G. Wodehouse.

Details of Waddell’s life are given in great detail in Pulpit Radical and the contribution of the Papers Past digitalised newspaper website, which the author thankfully acknowledges, is obvious throughout. Some may want to check on how he pronounced his surname or examine this Northern Irishman’s relations with the Catholic Church but those two topics, at least in the first reading, seem to have fallen by the wayside. An index would have been the icing on the cake.

If social history, religion, Dunedin’s past, theology or a dozen other topics interest you, then this is a book you should read. Pulpit Radical is far from giving the "very imperfect, sometimes very false" notion of a life that Waddell had experienced in his own reading and it may well be "the definitive biography". Ian Dougherty is to be congratulated on so closely attaining that near impossible goal.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.

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